The state of New Jersey tends to be maligned and misunderstood by Midwesterners, who frequently associate it with blighted cities, fictional mob bosses and in-your-face attitude. Not Zach Parise, who still feels a deep affection for the place where he grew into an NHL star.
The Minnesota native was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2003 and spent seven happy seasons in East Rutherford and Newark. Sunday, Parise will play against his former team for the first time since he signed with the Wild as a free agent in 2012. While he is looking forward to seeing many old friends, his lingering fondness for the Devils organization — and, yes, New Jersey — mean he also is eager to get past that initial experience of playing against it.
Parise signed a 13-year, $98 million deal to come home and play for the Wild. Contrary to assumptions, he was not counting the days until he could return. As the Devils captain, a fan favorite and a player once called “the heartbeat of the team,” Parise did not find it easy to leave the place.
“I loved it out there,” said Parise, who has six goals and four assists this season. “It’s a great place to play.
“[Sunday’s game] will be pretty nerve-racking. It will be fun to see the players and trainers and coaches and say ‘hi’ after the game. I’m excited to play it, but at the same time, I’m excited for it also to be past. The next 24 hours, I’ll be thinking about it quite a bit.”
Parise played 502 games for the Devils, compiling 194 goals and 216 assists and leading them to the Stanley Cup Finals in his final season. He remains friends with several Devils players, including former linemate Travis Zajac and longtime goaltender Martin Brodeur.
As a young player, Parise said, he expected he might spend his entire career in New Jersey. He embraced the organization’s team-first, highly disciplined culture and emulated the veterans who helped him polish his hockey and leadership skills. He also came to appreciate the pizza, the mom-and-pop sandwich shops, and the proximity to New York City.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said he will talk to Parise briefly about the emotions surrounding the game, but he will not dwell on it. “I don’t think you want to turn it into too big of a thing,” Yeo said. “It’s not like he’s a young kid. He’s played the game enough to know what he has to do.”
The Wild was scheduled to play the Devils at Newark’s Prudential Center last November, but the game was canceled by the NHL lockout. Parise will face the Devils in New Jersey for the first time on March 20, when he knows emotions could run even higher.
After Sunday’s handshakes and greetings, Parise said, his feelings will be set aside for 60 minutes. “Of course you want to win the game,” he said. “For me, selfishly, I really want to win the game against them. You always want to beat your former team.”